14 September 2015

Review: Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics by Mike Madrid

Comic trade paperback, 248 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1940-50)
Acquired July 2014
Read September 2015
Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics
compiled and annotated by Mike Madrid

Mike Madrid's follow-up to Divas, Dames & Daredevils, which I've read but not yet reviewed, focuses on female villains of the Golden Age of Comics. Its array of characters feels a lot less diverse than the female heroes of the previous book-- I suppose there's only so many criminal plots in the Golden Age model one can come up with-- but it's still pretty enjoyable at times.

Some of these comics are terrible, of course, but some are genuinely good: it's obvious why Will Eisner (Espionage starring Black X: "Night of the Living Bombs") and Jack Cole (Plastic Man: "The Figure") are the artists we still know today, because they stand out head and shoulders above the other ones collected here. Even in 1940, Eisner is already starting to do cool stuff with panel borders and the conventions of the medium, and Cole's figure work is just fun. I don't remember DDD having any contributions by latterly-famous artists, so it's a nice touch on Madrid's part. Shame about the actual story of the Black X installment, though!

Once you get beyond the stereotypical superhero tales (especially the World War II-influenced ones), there's some good stuff here. "Crimebuster meets He She" (by Charles Biro) has a half-man, half-woman as a villain, though their means of operation is completely implausible: at one point, they swindle a woman of her fortune by marrying her, which requires He She to make sure the woman never sees their left side! There are a lot of smart and active women here-- you have to be both to be a villain, after all-- which as Madrid points out, defy some of our expectations of Golden Age comics women, mostly formed (I suspect) by the girlfriends in superhero comics. Some just seem evil, some are jealous, and many turn to crime when society leaves them little choice.

The section on race features a diverse range of villains-- Nepalese, African, Indian, Japanese-- though of course some of them are pretty distasteful, such as Merlin the Magician's adventure "Temple of the Man-Eating Spider" by Fred Gaurdineer, where Merlin (evidently a modern British adventurer who knows magic, not the Actual Merlin) semi-randomly decides to steal a Nepalese diamond so he can give it to Churchill to fun the war effort; for the offense of trying to stop him from stealing from them, he blows up their temple. Rulah the (white) Jungle Goddess versus Maya the (black) Nazi sympathizer in "Bloodstained Fangs!" (by Matt Baker) primarily seems to be an excuse for some woman-on-woman bath-wrestling action.

The best stories here are definitely the "true crime" ones, all collected from a 1948-51 series called, delightfully, Crimes by Women. These are the most lurid, are the most fun, and feature the most interesting villains. "Belle Guness: The Monster of Laporte," by the mysterious one-named Carter, is about a woman who kills her abusive husband in a moment of frustration... and then realizes how much money one can make by killing husbands over and over. "Madame Muscle: Maid of Steel" (move over, Supergirl!) is about a circus strongwoman who's manipulated into going bad, but then turns the table on her manipulators with a series of increasingly audacious heists; she's so ridiculous, you have to love her, I think. At one point she wrenches the door off the car she's in and throws it at a pursuing police car!

Best of all is "Mable Reine: Queen of the Jungle" (unlike with Rulah, it's a metaphor), about a girl raised by train-jumpers... until one of the train-jumpers is killed by the police, and she decides to start a societal revolution and raises an army. She loses, of course, but atta girl! You can see why these true crime stories were so popular, and these small doses of them definitely hold up today. If the rest of Crimes by Women is this fun, I'd definitely read a whole collection of just that!

Fans of the DC universe should note that this volume actually contains four stories that I think would have been (or could have been) in continuity during the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths/pre-Flashpoint era, when many of the Golden Age comics later acquired by DC were considered to have actually happened when they were published. The first of the many Manhunters, Dan Richards, faces "Red-Haired Kate" in a 1943 story by Al Bryant. The original Doll Man takes on "Beauty and Her Beasts" (her plan is to kill or disfigure all women more attractive than her) in a 1946 story also by Al Bryant. A postwar Blackhawk Squadron is beset by "Madame Butterfly," a Japanese spymaster out for revenge for the death of her lover during the war in a 1949 story by Bill Woolfolk, Reed Crandall, and Chuck Cuidera. And Plastic Man faces "The Figure," a woman with a great figure who's great with figures in a 1950 tale by Jack Cole. There's no reason these Golden Age tales couldn't fit into the pre-reboot DCU as far as I can see!

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